Palace Council, by Stephen L. Carter
Reviewed by Rima Walker
Spanning the 1950s through 1975, this gripping novel reveals a group of 20 powerful people, both black and white, who had “no patience with democracy.” They banded together in a group known as the Palace Council whose aim was to create a “covert campaign to build a better America by taking it over, even if it takes generations to implement.” The appeal of the group for the Afro-Americans was the hope that a better America would include racial equality. The Council uses everything it has to achieve this, including the creation and backing of radical groups who would help overthrow the political system through rioting and mayhem. Unfortunately, someone is starting to kill off members of the Council.
This spellbinding, ambitious novel by Yale law professor Stephen Carter works on several complicated levels that all come together as the tale unfolds. First, it is a conspiracy thriller with the protagonist, Eddie Wesley, novelist and political journalist, trying to find his sister, Junie, who had disappeared from her home and family to take up a revolutionary cause with a group called Jewel Agony. The story of his search is entangled with Aurelia Treene, the love of Eddie’s life, who tries to find out why her husband, Kevin Garland, has been killed. Second, it is an intriguing glimpse into the structured lives of wealthy upper class intellectual Afro-Americans who lived in the correct uptown neighborhoods of upper Harlem and were ruled by the grand dames called Czarinas, a black social counterpart to an earlier group of white society people we have come to know of through the writings of novelists like Edith Wharton. And third, of course, it is a love story about the reluctant Aurelia and the loyal Eddie, who has pursued her for years although she continues to hold him at arms’ length.
As Eddie follows his goal of finding Junie and Aurelia hunts for the reason why her husband is dead, they end up working together, realizing that there is a common thread that ties their pursuits together. That thread is the Palace Council.
Carter deftly weaves together fact and fiction. We glimpse Adam Clayton Powell, the powerful Harlem politician; Langston Hughes, the great black poet; Joe and Jack Kennedy (Eddie becomes his speech writer); the despicable J. Edgar Hoover and his minions; Neil Armstrong who walked on the moon; Black Panther leaders including Angela Davis; and Richard Nixon, whom Carter portrays in a rather surprising and sympathetic fashion as a friend of Aurelia’s and confider in Eddie. We also relive some of the horrors of that era with the Watergate scandal, the Pentagon Papers, the war in Vietnam, the students strikes on college campuses, the shootings of students at Kent State, the Attica revolt in the early 70s that resulted in “the largest killing of Americans by Americans in the twentieth century”, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., Jack Kennedy, Medgar Evers, and Bobby Kennedy.
For code breaker lovers such as readers of the DaVinci Code, a lost testament that will unravel some of the mysteries is hunted down and is based on lines from Paradise Lost by John Milton, a long poem about Adam and Eve in the Garden and the fall of Lucifer who found it “better to reign in hell than serve in heaven”, and who, along with his fellow demons, plans to destroy God’s creation since God himself is untouchable. In short, a revolt against the power that is.
The novel is so well written in flowing prose that the intertwined stories unravel easily, and we find it simple to ignore the few instances when Carter’s writing turns a bit too purple. If you want to start at the beginning, pick up Carter’s first two novels, The Emperor of Ocean Park, and New England White. ~